DEF LEPPARD are one of only five artists to sell 10 million copies of two albums. Pyromania, the British band's 1983 album, crossed over to the pop charts, delivering radio hits like "Photograph" and "Rock of Ages." Sure, their concessions to the mainstream were blatant, but when they draw from influences like T. Rex and Roxy Music on "Rock Rock ('Til You Drop)" and "Armageddon It," Def Leppard are the ultimate guilty pleasure. Guitarist Phil Collen recently spoke from Nashville, where his band had just played the Country Music Awards, performing the award-nominated "Photograph" as a duet with Taylor Swift.
Did you ever think when you joined the band you'd be appearing on the Country Music Awards?
Not even slightly. I didn't even think I would be doing this at 51. The whole thing is completely different from what I imagined anyway. Health-wise, I do stuff now that I couldn't even get close to at 20. It's just crazy.
I never thought of "Photograph" as a track that could be sung by a woman.
Join the club. I didn't either. It puts a different slant on it. Taylor [Swift] is great. What I really get from a lot of her stuff is that she writes great songs with brilliant melodies.
You guys initially changed your name from Deaf Leopard to Def Leppard. Any chance you'll put the "a" back in Deaf once you all turn 60?
Well, that's a good point. If it would have happened, it would have happened a long time ago.
Why did British DJ John Peel initially champion the band?
His main thing was more alternative. I was in another band called Girl at the time, but what he saw in Def Leppard was that Def Leppard took the good bits of punk stuff. He saw that. That's what I like to think, though I don't really know.
I'm a fan of On Through the Night and High 'N' Dry. Do you play any songs from those discs?
We do bits of High 'N' Dry. We have done stuff from On Through the Night, but it's a real purist thing. I remember we played Wembley once, and we put "Wasted" in, and some people went nuts and the other 9,000 went "Where's 'Photograph?'"
Mutt Lange produced High N Dry in addition to Pyromania. So what happened between those two albums to turn the band into platinum-selling superstars?
I joined the band. Actually, when I joined, the stuff on Pyromania was very different. Mutt had seen the potential in the songwriting. [Guitarist] Steve Clark used to come up with these cool riffs that were very unique. When I joined the band, all the rhythm tracks were done. I just had to go and play solos. It was a blast. Mutt was just pushing the band to see how far he could take it. We continued that with Hysteria, which was a pretty open-minded record for a rock band at the time.
How different would Hysteria have sounded if Jim Steinman had stayed on as producer?
It wouldn't have been special. Those songs were written with Mutt Lange. He had the foresight for what it was supposed to sound like. It would have sounded very ordinary. It wouldn't have made your heart race.
Steve Clark's death must have been devastating. How did the band deal with it?
Just on a personal level, he was my best friend. We all saw it coming — him included. That was the most tragic part of the whole thing. He knew there was only one way to go with that. That sucked. At one point, I thought, "It's not the gang anymore." We approached things differently. We said, "All these riffs are part of him." So we finished [1992's Adrenalize] and took it from there.
Def Leppard was featured in one of the first Behind the Music episodes. How ironic is it that it's ended up being one of the highest-rated episodes?
It's reality TV. You have rock stars self-destructing and dying. It's all there. We are still obsessed with reality TV and what more than a bunch of musicians or whatever you want to call us being real on a TV screen.
You just played an emotional show in front of 50,000 fans at Donington Park. Talk about that experience a bit.
It was 75,000 actually. It was really cool. The whole week has been surreal. I played twice. I have another band called Man Raze, and we played the day that Slipknot and Marilyn Manson played. The whole thing was insane. ZZ Top, Journey and Tesla played the last day along with us. It was perfect, really. It was 23 years ago that [drummer] Rick [Allen] had played with us for the first time [after losing his arm]. [Singer] Joe [Elliott] made Rick cry on stage. It was a huge event — certainly for Rick because [the first show there] was proof that he was a human being again. It had a lot of symbolism.
What keeps the band going?
It never changes. There's always stuff to do. Last night, we played in front of a country audience, and the majority of people hadn't really heard us before. There's always room for upgrades. We're very ambitious. We're constantly trying to improve stuff. We have this huge body of work we're really proud of. We like putting new music out. It's just great when people appreciate it. It doesn't suck.